Start to think about football referees and the question quickly presents itself: who on earth would be one? Famous but not celebrated, physically fit but not skilled. Earning a fraction of the wages of those in the same sphere. Good jobs going unnoticed, bad jobs anything but. Does it take a special kind of madness? Belgian documentary The Referees (or Les Arbitres), released on DVD next week, doesn’t purport to have the answers – but certainly opens a window for us onto these strange, marginal and sometimes lonely lives.
The film is the result of special access granted by UEFA to director Yves Hinant, whose crew followed various officials around on their everyday business during Euro 2008. The trick is that you barely notice they’re there: those being filmed only ever talk to each other, never looking into the camera or at an off-screen interviewer. We see a wrong decision anxiously mulled over amongst the officials themselves, and a father’s pride expressed to random local over a pint. The viewer is left with the convincing illusion that there is no camera: this is genuine, fly-on-the-wall stuff.
One major effect is to swiftly eliminate the idea that referees might ever be biased. The pressures illustrated here are manifold: the respect of fellow professionals, the hopes of friends and loved ones watching on television and the incredible level of scrutiny performances are subject to, via UEFA assessments. One excruciating scene sees a poor linesman sitting through countless replays of an incorrect offside decision in a room of colleagues, having to describe his own mistake (and what he should have done instead) like a naughty schoolchild. Later, Howard Webb is the subject of death threats and comparisons to Hitler – and his family home afforded extra security for fear of attack – after the award of a last-minute penatly against Poland. Which team is fouling which is clearly never the issue here: these guys are just desperate that they get every decision right.
Then there’s the film’s true calling card: its footage of the games themselves. Tracking his subjects around the pitch, Hinant uses a compelling camera technique (one I’m not sure I’ve seen before) which somehow focuses on everything in shot – so that at times its possible to watch players in close-up, referee in the centre and baying crowd in the background all at once. What’s more, the sound is mixed so that chanting and other noises are dulled, whilst the headsets linking the referee, his two linesmen and the fourth official are brought to the forefront – much, presumably, like these men must try to do in reality. It’s fascinating to listen in: at one point a referee cautioning a particularly burly player is reminded ‘don’t back off Peter!’ and you can watch as he visibly forces himself to a stop. They shout things like ‘dive!’, ‘yellow!’, ’18!’ and constantly tell each other ‘well done’. Howard Webb calls all the players ‘my friend’.
Are they mad? Perhaps, but no more so than the rest of us. The foibles uncovered by Hinant here include a melodramatically delivered hotel-room speech about ‘courage’, a bizarre kissing routine performed moments before a match, and – most endearingly – one linesman practising his flag-waving technique in front of the dressing room mirror. These human touches are a relief; indeed it’s difficult not to leave the film with the impression of a football world which could do with taking itself less seriously. The clearest and most sensible comment is made by one Swiss referee, in the midst of battle, to a raging player. ‘We are not gods. We make mistakes. I am sorry.’